Trump Administration Blames Iran for Attack on Oil Tankers, but Provides No Proof
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks on two foreign tankers transiting through the Gulf of Oman, escalating the tensions between the Trump Administration and Tehran.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for Thursday’s attacks. Pompeo said that intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials demonstrated Iran’s culpability, but he provided no evidence to support the assertion. “This assessment is based on intelligence, weapons used, level of expertise needed, recent similar Iranian attacks, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication,” he said.
It is the latest of several recent attacks in the Middle East that Pompeo attributed to Iranian government. The incidents, he said, included an earlier assault on four tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, armed drone attacks against Saudi oil facilities, a deadly bombing in Afghanistan and a rocket attack on the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where the U.S. embassy is located.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo said.
Although he stopped short of threatening military force, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have increased since President Donald Trump walked away from the landmark multilateral nuclear deal a year ago. The Administration’s mounting pressure on Iran began with a war of words but has escalated toward more serious confrontations.
Last month, Trump authorized deploying additional troops and firepower to the Middle East to deter what his Administration says is “malign behavior” by Iran that is intended to damage the United States and its allies. A squadron of 12 jet fighters, several spy planes, Patriot missile batteries, a B-52 bomber task force, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets have already been dispatched to the region.
In the latest incident, the U.S. Navy confirmed it received two separate distress calls from the two attacked ships, Marshall Islands-flagged MT Front Altair and the Panama-flagged Kokuka Courageous, beginning at 6:12 a.m. local time. Images taken at one of the incidents show flames blanketing the ship’s hull while clouds of black smoke billow into the clear sky.
The U.S. Navy dispatched the USS Bainbridge destroyer to respond to the Kokuka Courageous. The crew of 21 was forced to abandon their damaged ship and clamber aboard the Bainbridge. According to two U.S. officials, who spoke to TIME on the condition of anonymity, American sailors found an unexploded magnetic mine, called a limpet mine, attached to Kokuka Courageous.
An investigation is underway, and the innards of the unexploded limpet mine will provide clues that could help identify a perpetrator. One of last month’s attacks attributed to Iran was also carried out with a magnetic mine.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the U.S. military’s Joint Staff director, told reporters at the Pentagon last month that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite arm of the Iranian military, was directly responsible for the sabotage of four tankers in the Gulf of Oman. When pressed about the evidence, Gilday said the intelligence was too sensitive to disclose.
One U.S. official said the assessment that Iran is responsible rests partly on the idea that “only Iran has the resources to do this.” While that makes sense, this official said, limpet mines are relatively simple and cheap, and could be triggered remotely or by timer like a roadside bomb, without advanced triggering mechanisms.
While it’s far more likely that Iran did this, this official said, it would be better have positive intelligence rather than an absence of other likely suspects before responding with military action, given the danger of escalation.
Another issue, said one official after Pompeo’s remarks, is distinguishing between the Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force on the one hand, and Iran’s civilian government on the other. “The Revolutionary Guard is an entity unto itself, so it’s conceivable that the IRGC could have launched these attacks without orders from [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani,” the official said.
In April, the Trump Administration designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, which restricts members’ banking transactions and ability to travel. It marked the first time the U.S. designated an arm of a nation’s government as a terrorist group. “After being designated a terrorist organization and sanctioned, the Guard certainly had a motive, given the effect the sanctions will have on its economic interests,” the official said. “It’s not like Iran has civilian control of the military, so what’s the right response?”
The escalating tension in the Gulf puts Trump in a difficult position, officials say. On May 19, Trump tweeted, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
Not responding to the latest attacks, if they were perpetrated by Iran, could encourage even more in coming days. Ruling out even limited military action, such as sinking several small fast-boats belonging to the IRGC, which often harass U.S. Navy ships in the region, could make it look as if Iran called Trump’s bluff.
A large military response would spike shipping insurance rates and oil prices, cost lives and further destabilize the region, officials said. The Gulf of Oman, where the attacks took place, is near the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil passes.
“We have no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East,” said Lt. Col Earl Brown, a military spokesman. “We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community.”
There is no dispute within the Administration that Iran is a bad actor intent on expanding its influence in the Middle East, either directly as its military forces and Iranian-backed political groups have done in Iraq, or by funding and equipping proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The dispute is how to respond.
However, while Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have argued for a more aggressive response, Trump has been reluctant to use military force and some officials in the intelligence community, the military and the State Department have warned that a military response could easily spin out of control.
“It is quite stunning that Pompeo gave no time and space for conducting a proper investigation before blaming Iran,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “If Iran was behind these attacks, it clearly shows that Trump’s maximum pressure strategy has rendered Tehran more, not less, aggressive. If Iran is not the culprit, it is clear that some other actor could be trying to engineer a Gulf of Tonkin-type of incident to push the U.S. into a conflict with Iran.”
Either way, the Administration’s aggressive maneuvers and Iran’s responses have created an environment ripe for inadvertent conflict. Officials at the State and Defense Departments and in U.S. intelligence agencies blame Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, for much of the tension.
The assessments within the intelligence community don’t square with Bolton’s and he often ignores them, officials at two agencies say, again agreeing to speak only anonymously. For example, while Bolton says Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons that could hit Israel, Saudi Arabia and other friendly states, the U.S. intelligence assessment—shared by other nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency—is that Iran continues to abide by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Since abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal, the Trump Administration has turned the global financial system into a weapon against Tehran. The policy has triggered an exodus of corporations and financial institutions that would rather abandon their investments in Iran than risk U.S. Treasury Department sanctions.
Iran’s economy-sustaining oil exports have plunged to historic lows from their peak of 2.5 million barrels per day peak in April 2018. As a result of U.S. sanctions, more than 2 million barrels per day have been taken off the market, which has crippled the Iranian economy.
“No economic sanctions entitle the Islamic Republic to attack innocent civilians, disrupt global oil markets, and engage in nuclear blackmail,” Pompeo said. “The international community condemns Iran’s assault on the freedom of navigation and the targeting of innocent civilians.”